You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Arab femme helmers find oasis in Doha

The Doha Film Institute is bringing Arab women into its workshops and getting their films up on the screen

When aspiring Qatari filmmaker Hend Fakhroo heard that Mira Nair’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” would be headlining the fourth Doha Tribeca Film Festival this month, she was ecstatic.

Fakhroo, a 30-year-old mother of one, was preparing to present her first short film at the fest, and she counts Nair as one of her chief influences. To show at the same event, she said, was like a dream come true.

And she is not alone. Fakhroo was one of 26 female filmmakers showing at this year’s DTFF, where 87 films unspooled. Among that crop were 11 in the Arab World Competition and, perhaps most impressively, eight Qatari femmes showing in the Made in Qatar section, the annual salute to this gulf nation’s nascent film industry.

Their presence is no coincidence. With ample funding and a drive to promote its own homegrown talent, the Doha Film Institute, which sponsors the DTFF, is giving its all to bringing Arab women into its workshops and getting their films up on the screen.

Fakhroo harbors no illusions about her success. “I don’t know if I was in any other part of the world if my film would have been as supported as it was here,” she said.

Her short documentary, “His Name,” tells her personal story of looking for a connection with an Indian worker in her neighborhood.

She found support and funding from a group of Qatari men at Innovation Films who, despite Qatar’s traditional male-dominated culture, never questioned her ability, she says.

Qatar is so welcoming to female filmmakers, in fact, that at the communications and media school at the new Northwestern U. of Qatar, 80% of students are female. “Lyrics Revolt,” a documentary on hip-hop in the Arab world helmed by four female graduates of the first Northwestern Qatar class, was the darling of this year’s Made in Qatar section. Thanks to DFI, it got a red-carpet preem, a live hip-hop concert following the screening and a catered after-party at one of the posh restaurants dotting the Doha waterfront.

Haifaa Al Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker, served on the jury for the Made in Qatar competish and says there has never been a moment like now for female industryites in the region.

“It’s an amazing time for filmmakers, especially female filmmakers, coming from this part of the world, because the area is getting more and more important economically and politically,” she says. “The rest of the world wants to hear from Arab women, and that makes them very important right now.”

And Doha is leading the way. The drive to encourage female helmers here can be traced all the way up to Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, one of the wives of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, emir of Qatar. The highly educated, highly visible royal is completely committed to elevating women in her region, say executives at DFI, making support of female Arab filmmakers a natural mission.

“The focus on women, sort of on a more general level, and encouraging women to engage in different disciplines and work, really started with her vision,” Doha Film Institute CEO Abdulaziz Al-Khater says of the sheikha. “By the time DFI was established and we were doing DTFF, this culture (of supporting women) already had a lot of traction.”

And it’s not just the neophytes who are getting a boost. Nair, who brought “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” to Doha for its Middle East and North Africa debut after opening it at the Venice Film Festival, had a string of successful projects behind her when she started the film. But she has DFI alone to thank for its success.

Speaking with reporters at Doha, Nair explained how she had initially secured five financiers for “Fundamentalist,” including the DFI. And then, one by one, all the others backed out — but DFI stayed on board. After an odyssey that spanned five countries on three continents, the film was made.

Showing in Doha, she said, was a particular honor because the identity struggles of the pic’s Middle Eastern protagonist, Changez, resonated with the audience. “A lot of people here see themselves in Changez’s journey because that’s what it’s like coming here,” Nair said. “Being seen as one thing, when you’re maybe not that thing and you’re maybe much more than that one thing.”

Such a sentiment also seemed to resonate with many of the women showing work in the Arab World competition. Egyptian helmer Maggie Morgan, whose first feature, “Asham: A Man Called Hope,” was in competition at DTFF, says she had been particularly eager to come to Doha because of its openness. The Arab world needs female filmmakers, she says, because there are stories that only they can tell.

“I feel like my film could have only been made by a woman because of the degree of detail and attention to the little things,” she says. “Not to be cliched, but even in life, men don’t notice so many of these little things. I think the humanity of the story has to do with my being a woman.”

Morgan’s pic weaves together the lives of six Egyptian couples as the Jan. 25 revolution unfolds around them.

For Al Mansour, it’s not just that Arab women can tell unique stories, but that they must.

“Arab women are always sheltered, and they’re always veiled and pushed aside,” she says. “And there are lots of smart women who want to push the boundaries and want to take the opportunity to say we are here, we want to do this.”

The films of local women are best, she adds, when they speak straight from the heart.

“These girls, they are coming with their own voices and their own experiences,” Al Mansour says. “They are not talking about anybody else. They are talking about their own world. It’s really cool. It’s a great time for women from this region.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • So Long, My Son directed by

    Wang Xiaoshuai's 'So Long, My Son' Earns Six APSA Nominations

    Chinese drama, “So Long, My Son,” was nominated in six categories for this year’s Asia Pacific Screen Awards. The unprecedented haul makes it a clear favorite. The Wang Xiaoshuai-directed drama about separation, secrets, a lifetime of regret, and the consequences of China’s one child policy, had its premiere in February at the Berlin festival. There [...]

  • Alan Rickman

    Film News Roundup: 'Galaxy Quest' Documentary Set for Release

    In today’s film news roundup, rescue drama “Not Without Hope” is back in development, a “Galaxy Quest” documentary is set for release, “The Two Popes” wins another award, and Ella Joyce gets cast. PROJECT REVIVED U.K.-based financing-production outfit Goldfinch has bought feature film rights to Nick Schuyler’s “Not Without Hope” and signed “The Fog” director [...]

  • Ryan Reynolds John Krasinkski

    Ryan Reynolds, John Krasinski in Talks for 'Imaginary Friends' Movie

    Ryan Reynolds and John Krasinski are in talks to board the fantasy comedy “Imaginary Friends” at Paramount Studios. Paramount recently won the bidding for the property over Lionsgate and Sony. Krasinski will write, direct,  produce and star while Reynolds will co-star if the deals go through. The story centers on a man who can see [...]

  • Willem Dafoe attends the "Motherless Brooklyn"

    Willem Dafoe Joins Guillermo Del Toro's 'Nightmare Alley'

    Willem Dafoe has closed a deal to join Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of “Nightmare Alley.” Collider had first reported that Dafoe was being considered for a role in the film, but sources now say the “Lighthouse” star has closed a deal to join the cast. The “At [...]

  • 'To the Ends of the Earth'

    Busan Film Review: 'To the Ends of the Earth'

    “To the Ends of the Earth,” the story of a young Japanese journalist’s experiences in Uzbekistan filming a report for a Japanese TV travel show, was originally commissioned to celebrate 25 years of cordial diplomatic relations between director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s hyper-developed island homeland and the less affluent, landlocked Central Asian nation. As such we might [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content